Superbugs Fact Sheet

What you need to know about bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

There are some scary bugs going around these days: MRSA, C. Diff and other types of infections that are tough to treat with the drugs we have available. Learn more about these superbugs.

The Basics

Superbugs are strains of bacteria that have evolved to become resistant to antibiotics. They can cause serious, potentially life-threatening conditions – from skin infections to gonorrhea – that were once highly treatable. Superbugs now cause infections in 2 million people a year in the in United States alone.

How Superbugs Emerged

When penicillin was made widely available in the 1940s, it was literally a lifesaver – but soon some organisms grew resistant to it. While drug manufacturers tried to counter this with new antibiotics, these induced the same resistance over time that penicillin had. In part, this was caused by antibiotic overuse and misuse. Doctors often prescribed these drugs when the infection was viral rather than bacterial, which meant the antibiotics had no effect on the real cause of infection. Patients often stopped taking their antibiotics before finishing the full course of treatment. This misuse of antibiotics meant that antibiotics were given in amounts high enough to kill the weakest bacteria, but not high enough to wipe out those with some resistance. Those with some resistance became dominant and passed their resistance on to other bacteria that were exposed to the same antibiotics.

Top Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs

An increasing number of bacteria are resistant to available treatments. Some of these bugs represent a growing threat to national and even global health. Chief among them are gonorrhea, tuberculosis, Clostridium difficile (or C. Diff, a bacterial infection causing inflammation of the colon), and MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a strain of staph).

Where Superbugs Live

Superbugs are found in hospitals and other communal spaces. One reason that superbugs are a problem in hospitals is that patients are often given high doses of heavy antibiotics. In some cases, that can pick out the bugs most resistant to the harshest drugs. Those bugs then get circulated in the hospital where the immune systems of sick patients are already less able to fight off infections from these dangerous organisms. Out in the community, common places for superbugs (especially MRSA) are those that tend to be breeding grounds for bacteria – think gyms, dorms and day-care centers. Fortunately, dangerous infections from these sources are less common than they are in the hospital because people outside of hospitals tend to be healthier. But those contaminated may carry the bacteria back to those less able to protect themselves, like infants or older family members.

Protect Yourself

Stronger, different antibiotics (some with stomach irritation as a side effect or troublesome drug interactions) can be used to treat some superbugs. But as with most illnesses, the best protection is prevention. Wash your hands properly, keep wounds covered and clean, and wash your clothes or towels after using the gym, public pools or other areas where germs can spread. And if you do catch any kind of bug where an antibiotic is prescribed, always take it exactly as directed for the full course, even if you feel better before you’re done.  

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